Michigan Criminal Process
A criminal charge against you can be overwhelming and confusing, especially if it’s the first time you’ve been arrested or in court. This page aims to take some of the mystery out of the process and let you know generally what to expect if you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense in Michigan. However, every case is different, and an experienced Michigan defense lawyer can answer specific questions about your charge. Learn how we can make a difference in your case during a free consultation.
Many criminal cases start with an investigation. Someone reports a crime or police suspect that a crime was committed, and they try to figure out what happened and who did it. That process may include:
- Interviewing witnesses
- Taking photos
- Evaluating a crime scene
- Gathering physical evidence
- Conducting searches
- Identifying suspects
- Questioning suspects
If police consider you a suspect, sometimes also known as a “person of interest” in an investigation, it’s important to know that you have rights in that part of the process. One of the most important is your 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Police may ask to search you or your property, but you don’t have to consent to a search unless they have a valid search warrant. If police search you or your property, such as your home or your car, without a search warrant, your rights may have been violated.
You also have the right to have an experienced Detroit criminal defense attorney by your side when you know you’re the subject of a criminal investigation. A lawyer can be present when police interview you or when police want to search your property. The presence of a lawyer may mean that police are more careful not to violate your rights — and a skilled criminal defense lawyer can challenge them if they do violate your rights.
At some point during an investigation, the police may decide they have enough evidence against you to make an arrest. If the police saw you commit a crime, or they have probable cause to believe that you committed a crime, they can arrest you on the spot. That kind of arrest happens most often police are responding to an incident that just happened — such as getting called to break up a bar fight and arresting you for assault based on what witnesses tell them at the scene.
Sometimes an arrest will come at the end of a more detailed or lengthy investigation, such as an investigation into drug trafficking over a period of several months. In that type of investigation, police typically will go to a court to ask for an arrest warrant based on the evidence gathered in the investigation.
An arrest is not the same as a charge. Police don’t file charges, and contrary to what’s often shown on TV victims don’t “press charges” against you. In Michigan, it’s typically a prosecutor who decides whether there’s enough evidence to charge you with a crime. The prosecutor prepares and files the charging document, which starts the criminal court process.
In order to charge you, a prosecutor only needs probable cause — or in other words sufficient grounds to believe you committed a crime. That’s much less stringent than the standard at a trial, where a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime.
Criminal Court Process
Once the process starts in a Michigan court, how your case unfolds works a little differently depending on whether your charge is a misdemeanor or a felony. Once you’ve been charged, it’s a good idea to consult with a skilled Michigan defense lawyer about your options for a defense.
- District Court Arraignment — This is your first court appearance after your arrest. The charges against you are read out loud and you enter a plea. The plea options in Michigan include guilty, not guilty, or no contest. No contest means that you don’t admit to guilt, but acknowledge enough evidence exists that you could be convicted. A no contest plea is treated more or less like a guilty plea. You also may stay silent, which a Michigan court treats like a not guilty plea. If you plead not guilty, a judge will consider setting a bail or bond amount in your case.
- Pretrial — Pretrial proceedings are where a lot of the work is done in criminal cases. Part of the goal is to determine if the case can be resolved without going to trial, and to settle some types of issues before trial. Issues to be settled may include questions about the validity of evidence, or whether evidence should be excluded when it was obtained through improper or illegal means, such as a warrantless search.
- Trial — If the case isn’t resolved during the pretrial phase, it goes to trial. At your trial, the prosecutor has to prove his or her case and your defense lawyer gets a chance to rebut the prosecutor’s case.
- Verdict — At the end of a trial, a judge or jury renders a decision finding you guilty or not guilty. If you chose to have a jury trial, all jurors must agree to the verdict unanimously or you may have to get a new trial.
- Sentencing — If you plead guilty or are found guilty, your case proceeds to sentencing. This usually happens at a later date than your guilty plea or verdict. Typically, the judge receives a pre-sentencing report from the probation department that includes information about you and a sentencing recommendation. The prosecutor and your lawyer also may weigh in on appropriate sentencing and any factors that should be considered before the court decides your sentence.
- Appeal — Appeals in misdemeanor cases that originate in Michigan district courts are heard in circuit courts. Appeals involve deciding whether legal errors were committed during your case that affected the outcome, such as a jury getting an inappropriate instruction from a judge. Appeals do not typically involve reconsideration of the evidence in your case or consideration of new evidence.
- District Court Arraignment — A district court arraignment works differently in a felony case. The charge against you is read and you are advised of your rights, but you don’t enter a plea at this stage.
- Pre-Exam Conference — This is similar to a pretrial conference in a misdemeanor case, and typically involves the prosecutor and your defense lawyer discussing whether the case can be resolved without further proceedings.
- Felony Preliminary Examination — This is a hearing held within 14 days after your district court arraignment. This also may be known as a “probable cause” hearing. Basically, this hearing is about establishing that there’s enough evidence to suspect you of a crime. If the district court decides there’s enough evidence for your case to proceed, your charge moves to the county circuit court. You can waive this hearing and have your case sent directly to a circuit court if you choose.
- Circuit Court Arraignment — Once your felony case goes to circuit court, you have your more formal arraignment. The charges are read again, and this time you enter a plea.
- Pretrial — During the pretrial phase, the prosecutor and your defense lawyer may try to resolve the case without taking it to trial. This also is a time when issues related to evidence are handled, including any efforts by your lawyer to suppress evidence that was obtained through improper or illegal means.
- Trial — If your case isn’t resolved by a guilty plea at your arraignment, or during the pretrial phase, then it goes to trial. Both sides present evidence and witness testimony, and a judge or jury decides whether the prosecutor has proven your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Verdict — At the end of a trial, the jury or judge renders a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If your trial was in front of a jury, all jurors must agree to the verdict unanimously.
- Sentencing — If you plead guilty or are found guilty, then a court determines your sentence. The probation department prepares a pre-sentencing report about your and your offense, and makes a sentencing recommendation. Your lawyer and the prosecutor also may make arguments about what sentence is appropriate in your case. Ultimately, a judge decides what your sentence will be.
- Appeal — An appeal involving a felony case tried in a circuit court is sent to the Court of Appeals for consideration. An appeal is based on allegations that legal errors were made during your trial that affected the outcome. No new evidence is heard, and the Court of Appeals does not reconsider evidence introduced at your trial. The Court of Appeals only decides if legal errors were made.